Regional Affairs

Hanlu Zhang on the Yinchuan Biennale

Architect and artist Li Juchuan and WUXU Group's Zheng Ningyuan in front of Li's A Lookout to Xi Hai Gu. (All photos: Hanlu Zhang)

YINCHUAN IS IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, even though the city claims itself to be the “center” of China. The Museum of Contemporary Art Yinchuan is also in the middle of nowhere; the meadow and man-made ponds outside its postmodern architecture bring to mind Iowa, the Netherlands, and Hokkaido. But inside, the second Yinchuan Biennale offers up images from everywhere else: South Africa, Dongting Lake in China’s Hunan Province, the Kachin Hills in Burma, the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan, Chitwan in Nepal, Mexico City—the list goes on. The biennale’s invited curators and artists from across the globe aren’t connected just by the theme (“Ecologies on the Edge”) but also on WeChat—the only social network/messaging platform that works within the Great Firewall. WeChat is now a must for artists showing in mainland China.

Along the way from the hotel to the museum are endless wide roads, rows of orderly green trees, and gigantic apartment complexes. Yinchuan is not that different from any other second- or third-rate Chinese city, except for having an eccentric small knockoff of the Tiananmen on one of the city’s major squares. China’s northwest has long struggled to find its economic position and cultural personality within the country, especially compared to the richer and politically more important east coast. In recent years, however, the One Belt One Road (OBOR) has brought hope. This mega economic-diplomatic-propagandic national project derives its name from the ancient Silk Road, which witnessed the grandiose past of the northwest as home to early metropolises. Today, Yinchuan wants to be international again—and the biennale is part of that effort.

Kimsooja's The Porridge Project.

On opening day, Saturday, June 9, Enkhbold Togmidshiirev’s ritual-infused outdoor performance and Kimsooja’s participatory porridge serving, along with many other works, made it clear that contemporary art practices find their roots not merely in the short history of Western Conceptualism but also in numerous aspects of social lives across cultures and histories. Navjot Altaf’s three-channel video installation Soul, Breath, Wind juxtaposes a seemingly peaceful landscape with activists’ long-term struggle to fight both state power and corporate mining in central India. Nomin Bold’s thangka-inspired paintings, displayed alongside MOCA’s permanent collection exhibition on the history of cartography, capture the tension between the nomadic and the urban in Ulaanbaatar. Another permanent collection exhibition includes early oil paintings from China. The bienniale’s curator, Marco Scotini, chose one of these works—his fellow Italian Giuseppe Castiglione’s Portrait of Emperor Qianlong in Winter Suit from 1756–57—to open his show.

In the afternoon, Ho Rui An’s enthralling lecture-performance In Search of “Asia the Unmiraculous” asked, “What is Asian capitalism?” and “What is Asian crisis?” Ho reviewed the continent’s history of economic growth as reflected in popular culture, and prefaced this history with China’s awe-inspiring role in today’s world. Xu Tan’s and Li Juchuan’s works brought us back to a less dramatic China. For Social Botany -12 Days, Xu researched the agricultural conditions around Yinchuan and talked with local Muslim farmers about how their beliefs have influenced their daily lives. For A Lookout to Xi Hai Gu, Li designed an outdoor pavilion and invited visitors to gaze upon one of the poorest and most religious areas in the country from afar. Li’s lookout is a little difficult to find under the brutal northwestern sun, but is worth the effort. These kinds of intersectional discussions about class, ethnicity, and religion aren’t familiar to many easterners.

Ho Rui An's In Search of “Asia the Unmiraculous.”

Some visitors noticed the erasure of Arabic script on signs both in and outside the museum and wondered why this had happened. Ningxia Autonomous Region holds one-fifth of China’s Hui population—a minority group mainly identified by their Muslim faith. In the wake of the OBOR not long ago, Ningxia’s capital, Yinchuan, was given the nickname “Oriental Dubai” and was expected to develop into a cultural and economic hub, open to the entire Islamic world. However, the city has witnessed a wave of “de-Arabization” since earlier this year—deemed by some as part of stricter religious policies stemming from the CCP’s 19th Party Congress this past October. While getting rid of Arabic influences in public space is just one visible measure, it’s hard to know how private life here is affected. Is the OBOR something that promotes cross-cultural exchanges, or does it potentially lead to the suppression of diversity? This pressing question lingers both in and outside of the Yinchuan Biennale.